I've been wanting to write about caraway all winter long, but somehow winter never happened and I never got around to that bowl of sauerkraut stew. Fortunately, loving caraway isn't weather-dependent, and this spice has plenty of uses beyond flavoring your sauerkraut or adding texture to your rye bread. Caraway is a great spice for adding Old World flavor to modern dishes.
Like many members of the Apiaceae family, which includes fennel, dill, cumin, and coriander (the seeds all look pretty similar), caraway doesn't get a lot of love from modern cooks. That's probably because like fennel, dill, cumin, and coriander, its flavor is plenty pungent and distinctive, and there's not much you can do to cover it up. Caraway is cliquish: It plays well with others, but only like-minded friends. Foreign herbs and non-European spices do best to leave it alone.
I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a challenge. Have you ever tried tasting spices the way you taste wine? It's a fun way to spend an hour, if a little exhausting on the palate. But it also reveals a lot more layers of flavor in a spice than you may have known about. Most of us tend to think of a spice as a single flavor—we say something has "notes of cardamom" or is "flavored with allspice." But spices really have layers of flavors all by themselves, which can be brought out by different ingredient pairings.
Caraway is at once sweet, pungent, musky, bready, and ever so slightly cabbage-esque. Pairing it with other members of the Apiaceae family brings out its sweeter, more vegetal side. Gently cook some carrots in butter, add some caraway, and steam them till done. All you need is a sprinkle of parsley for a simple side dish that plays to several of caraway's strengths.
Or put its pungency to work as a way to cut through fatty cuts of meat—pork belly and beef brisket especially. Caraway functions like rosemary of thyme in this regard, enriching the flavor of meat while contrasting it with something a little more refreshing. But it's sweeter than either herb, which I like for homey classics like braises and vegetable-rich soups.
It could be that caraway is inextricably tied to rye bread in our collective consciousness, but it really does taste bready. If you bake bread and haven't tried adding caraway, do so now. As with charnushka (another great bread spice), caraway is a dead-easy way to add complexity to even the simplest loaves. But don't limit yourself to yeasted breads. Savory scones, biscuits, and olive oil-rich flatbreads are also prime candidates.
I'll admit that caraway is more than a little old-fashioned, but that doesn't mean it's not worthy of our affections. There's a lot of powerful flavor locked in those tiny seeds.